Single mothers often struggle in South Korea, but local “Mother Centers” — based on a German network of cooperatives — are empowering women to take charge of their futures. These centers help mothers of all stripes — not only unwed mothers — help themselves. For all its joys, parenthood also comes with struggles and can leave parents feeling isolated; Mother Centers provide a sense of community.
Why are Mother Centers needed in South Korea? The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020 ranked South Korea 108th out of 153 countries in gender parity (including economic participation and empowerment, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment). As a result, women are often expected to take primary responsibility for child-rearing in lieu of a career, but many lack the resources to do so.
The Korea Herald cites a 2018 report from the Korea Population, Health and Welfare Association, which found that 63 percent of unwed mothers cannot afford medical treatment, while 70 percent suffer from depression. Only 11 percent of mothers surveyed were receiving child support from their child’s father, likely because failure to pay child support is not a crime in Korea. Of those surveyed, 61.6 percent said that they had no earned income. Government assistance can only go so far. Mother Centers provide a sense of hope — again, for all parents, not just single mothers.
In the city of Chuncheon, the capital of the northern province of Gangwon and a city of around 280,000 people located in a river basin, the Chuncheon Women’s Cooperative Mother Center is leading the way. Opened in October 2013, it is affiliated with the Chuncheon Women’s Organization, and provides childcare and education services to women. It is run as a cooperative and identifies as a feminist community opposed to neoliberalism.
This attitude extends to every aspect of the center, as members are empowered to take charge of their health, wellbeing and futures. Community meetings are a cornerstone of the program, and any member can call a meeting. Small groups include one for yoga; a nonviolent conversation group; a feminist reading group; and a writing club. There is also a community nursery, library and café.
Community stretches into the digital space as well, with members exchanging ideas on an online notice-board forum. The impact of the Mother Center extends far beyond its walls, as it reaches into the community to support individuals who may or may not be members.
One of the latest initiatives to spring from this Mother Center is the MotherBox, a project of the Chuncheon Social Living Lab. The program aims to level the playing field for all families with new babies, ensuring parents and children start off on the right foot. The boxes contain various items, including books on childcare, organic cotton diapers, baby nail clippers, and even eco-friendly detergent. These products are purchased from local cooperatives in Chuncheon City. The storage boxes can be re-used to store toys or clothes. The program’s commitment to families does not end with the distribution of the boxes. MotherBox recipients also receive up to six parenting lessons. The Mother Center represents a community-based, nonjudgmental resource for all parents.
Chuncheon Women’s Cooperative Mother Center is not the only Mother Center in South Korea. Gwanak-gu Happy Village Mother Center, based in the Gwanak-gu neighborhood of Seoul, also provides services. There are also hopes for a Seongnam Mother Center, and community meetings have been held to promote the idea. Supporters even held a cooking class at a local library where the community learned how to make healthy children’s snacks.
In addition to building up the Mother Center network in South Korea, community leaders are eager to connect with other organizations on a global scale. As part of policy training held in France and Germany in February 2019, Han-young Kim, president of the Happy Village Mother Center wrote about visiting the Familienzentrum Adalbertstraße, a family center in Berlin, and Eltern-Kind Zentrum in Potsdam. Why Germany? The Mother Center concept is based on a German model and Germany boasts 400 formal Mother Centers, with another 500 multi-family homes being run as informal Mother Centers.
More than 800 centers worldwide are part of the Mother Centers International Network for Empowerment (MINE), located in such countries as Argentina, Austria, Bosnia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Cameroon, The Netherlands, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the United States. The goals of MINE are extensive and multifaceted: to help at-risk families; to facilitate the participation of marginalized individuals in society; to promote child and maternal health; to bridge generational divides; and to serve as incubators for new ideas.
At its heart, the Mother Center movement is dedicated to removing the social and economic barriers that prevent all children from thriving. By acting as a community hub for all things parenting, These centers benefit local communities and empower members of all ages and backgrounds to get involved in the child-rearing process.